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Friday, January 10, 2014

Bag Ladies

Bagworm on Crepe Myrtle

While winter is the time of year when we hang man-made ornaments on our trees and shrubs to commemorate the holiday season, it is also the time of year when nature-made ornaments are most apparent in the landscape.  These ornaments are as widely unique as snowflakes, and their appearance varies with the bits and pieces of leaves, twigs, and bark fragments woven into silken bags in a shingle-like fashion.  They reveal themselves on the bare branches and limbs in winter, and they are created by female bagworms.

Bagworm on Anacacho Orchid Tree

Members of the Psychidae family, there are about 1,350 species of bagworms worldwide, also commonly known as bagworm moths or bagmoths. Although different bagworm species vary slightly in habits and life cycle, bagworms spend the winter months in the egg stage sealed within the bags produced by females the previous fall.  

In late May to early June, very tiny caterpillars hatch, produce a silken strand by which the wind can carry them to new foliage (called 'ballooning'), and construct a tiny conical bag carried upright with them as they move.  During leaf-feeding, the caterpillars emerge from the top of the bag and hang onto the host plant with their legs, sometimes aided with a silken thread. The bottom of the bag remains open to allow fecal material (called ‘frass’) to pass out of the bag. 

By August or September, fully grown caterpillars have developed larger bags, and pupate within them.  Seven to 10 days later, the pupae of the male moths work their way out of the bottom of the bag, and emerge from their pupal skin.  These males have half-inch long clear wings, feathery antennae, hairy black bodies, and they spend their time seeking out a female to mate.  Females, on the other hand, are immobile and stay in the larval stage, do not develop into moths, and remain inside the bags. After mating, the females produce a clutch of 500 to 1000 eggs inside their bodies and then die.    

Bagworm on Juniper

Bags vary in size, up to 2 inches long and about a half inch wide, and are spindle-shaped.  They can be quite ornamental, covered in a somewhat patterned array of bits and pieces of plant matter.  A wide range of broadleaf and evergreen trees and shrubs serve as hosts for bagworm species, including juniper, cedar elm, bald cypress, live oak, persimmon, sumac, sycamore, willow, yaupon, and native fruit and nut trees.  

Since these bags are composed of silk and plant materials, they are naturally camouflaged from predators such as birds and other insects.  While birds can eat the egg-laden bodies of female bagworms after they have died, the eggs are very hard-shelled and can pass through the bird's digestive system unharmed.  This represents yet another way to disperse bagworm species over a wide-ranging area, and helps in creating a whole new generation of bag ladies!